Two years ago Rami Shapiro, a former congregational rabbi for 20 years in Miami who now directs an educational center called One River Foundation, was invited to a Passover seder service at a church in Murfreesboro, Tenn., where he now lives.
Rabbi Rami Shapiro introduces his haggadah for Christians to clergy in Nashville. (Mike Smith photo)
While impressed by the sincerity of the participants, Shapiro felt frustrated because he felt the "haggadah," a prayer book used in the seder ritual, failed to engage the congregation in a manner that explained Jewish tradition and yet spoke directly to them as Christians.
Sensing the need for a haggadah specifically for Christians, he turned to his friend Michael Smith, pastor of First Baptist Church in Murfreesboro. The collaboration resulted in the February release of Let Us Break Bread Together: A Passover Haggadah for Christians, published by Paraclete Press.
The book is believed to be the first collaboration between a Christian pastor and a Jewish rabbi to prepare such a resource, Smith, a longtime pastor and former book editor, said at a pilot session introducing the book Thursday in Nashville.
Smith said the haggadah differs from other Christian Passover services on the market because it emerged from "a conscious desire to respect both of the faith traditions."
Shapiro said his aim in approaching Smith about the project was to honor the Jewish origins of Passover in a way that would still "speak to the Christian soul."
Shapiro said experiencing the seder can be moving for Christians as well as Jews. "There is something intrinsic in the ritual—if you open it up to the Christian congregation—that makes it compelling," Shapiro said. "It works on its own."
The book presents a do-it-yourself manual for planning, preparing, explaining and conducting a seder. To help Christians relate to the service, it describes what the symbols of the Passover mean to Jews, and then suggests possible parallels in Christianity.
In explaining the significance of using three pieces of matzah (unleavened bread), for example, the book points out the number three is sacred for both Jews and Christians. For Jews it can represent the three pillars of Judaism: God, Torah and Israel. For Christians the number symbolizes the Trinity.
Why is the middle matzah broken? For Jews it symbolizes the broken matzah of speech, confessing that words are often used to hurt rather than heal and make whole. For Christians, the broken matzah is the Son, who died on the cross for their salvation.
Shapiro acknowledged that some Jews worry that including Christians diminishes the seder's value as a distinctly Jewish rite. "I don't feel that way, and neither does Mike," said Shapiro, who has written 12 books.
When fellow Jews criticize him for "giving away our stuff," Shapiro said he reminds them that the history of Judaism and of religion in general involves "a lot of cross-borrowing." For example, he said, many interested in Jewish mysticism today borrow heavily from Buddhist meditation.
Secondly, Shapiro said, churches are already doing it. By some estimates, as many as 1,000 churches of all denominations will perform a Passover seder during Holy Week this year. "I'd rather they do it properly," he said.
Shapiro said there are other Christian Passover services available on the Internet, but he doesn't find them compelling. "I find them either too Jewish or not Jewish enough," he said.
Ironically, some of the "most Jewish" rituals are written from a "messianic" perspective, he said. Others go so far in reinterpreting the seder with Christian meaning that they divorce it from its Jewish roots.
Smith said the value of the seder for Christians is it gives them one more opportunity to tie an annual service with the liturgical calendar. The fact that it includes so many physical elements can also help correct a tendency among Christians to separate the spiritual and the physical.
Most important, Smith said, it is a way to use "Christian imagination" to connect with Jesus.
"We really need to come to grips with the fact that Jesus was a first century Jewish person," Smith said. "The seder is a great way to imagine yourself back to the first century. We need to connect better to Jesus. This is a way to do it."
As an observant Jew, Passover would have been a central part of Jesus' life, Shapiro and Smith say in the book's introduction. The Gospels mention the Passover in stories about Jesus' youth, and it plays an important role in the final week leading up to his crucifixion.
Jesus' final meal with his disciples is traditionally assumed to have been a seder. In Luke 22:15, he tells his disciples, "I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer."
Some modern scholars question whether what the Bible describes is actually a seder, however. Many of the elements used in the meal are missing, and the text does not indicate they used unleavened bread, which is required for the seder.
Shapiro said he isn't qualified to debate the meaning of the New Testament, but he feels the tradition that the Last Supper was a seder has been around long enough for "there to be a legitimate link."
Shapiro's One River Foundation promotes "peace, inter-spirituality and personal awakening through study, dialogue and contemplative practice," according to a Web site.
Current projects include "World Wisdom Weekends," which bring spiritual thinkers from various backgrounds together; the Moriah Gathering, which seeks common ground among Jewish, Christian and Muslim scholars; and Spiritual Literacy Month, which promotes learning about sacred texts of the world's major religions.
The foundation also sponsors the One River Center for the Study of Abrahamic Religions, which allows students studying to become Jewish, Christian, and Muslim clergy to live, study, and worship together for four weeks during the summer. The stated goal is "to build bonds of friendship that will translate into communal ties of deep inter-spiritual sharing among their future congregations."
Paraclete Press is an ecumenical publisher of books on Christian spirituality for people of all denominations and backgrounds, based in Orleans, Mass.
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.
Order Let Us Break Bread Together from Amazon.com.